A story went viral over the past couple weeks of a German tourist, 18 year old Andrej Ciesielski, climbing to the top of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and filming the endeavor. I've read articles on the story from numerous news outlets, and every time I read one, I expect to find the writer condemning his actions. Not only have I been unable to find a single source that paints Ciesielski's in a negative light, almost all of the stories that I've read have portrayed him almost as something of a hero.
As a photographer, I can't help but admire the lengths Ciesielkski went to
for the sake of the shot, but the traveller and appreciator of history in me is disgusted by the fact that he broke laws in place to protect and preserve these wonders of the world for another 4000+ years hopefully, all at the expense of some publicity and a video. It saddens me to see that most of the commentary around the story is regarding how brave he was for climbing the pyramid, or marvelling at the speed at which he climbed it. I can't understand why I seem to be one of the few who feel that this stunt is something that should be widely condemned as unacceptable, and the fact that he got off cleanly due to western privilege.
My frustration has roots in a number of issues, but in the end, I think it all boils down to Ciesielski's arrogance, selfishness, and lack of respect for individual people, a historically significant monument, and to a country as a whole.
First off, the arrogance. There were police officers guarding the pyramid who called after him once he was spotted half way up the pyramid. In Ciesielski's words “They shouted something in Arabic I think, but I didn’t care and kept going.” He had been warned by locals that climbing the pyramids is illegal, but he “thought it would be fine, what with Egypt's dependence on tourists.” I can hardly describe my frustration at the western arrogance Ciesielski displays here. Coming from a wealthy country and exploiting a struggling countries dependance on tourism, interpreting it as a license to do whatever he wants without fear of repercussion. I was extremely disappointed at the Egyptian authorities decision to decline to hand out any form of punishment initially, although as of last week they have now issued Ciesielski a lifetime ban from the country. Too bad the damage of his actions has already been done.
It seems they let him off after inspecting and deleting the footage from his camera. Unfortunately for them, he had already wirelessly backed up the data from his camera, once again thumbing his nose at authorities charged with protecting one of the countries most valuable resources. Make no mistake, the actual climbing of the pyramid, while arrogant and offensive, is nothing compared to the fact that he recorded the climb and published it to the internet.
This is not the first time western tourists have climbed one of the pyramids. Three years ago a group of Russians climbed the Great Pyramid of Giza in the middle of the night to evade security, resulting in similar stories of praise and heroism from the media. I have no doubt that with every viral story of this nature, more and more tourists will be inspired to attempt similar feats, each looking for their own 15 minutes of internet notoriety.
The fact of the matter is that the rules in place at the Pyramids in Egypt, and at similar historically significant sites around the world are intended to protect and preserve places deemed important culturally, but also economically. Egypt allowed tourists to climb the pyramids until the 1980s. Presumably, at that point they realized the damage that was being caused by this practice, and in an effort to maintain the state of their prized attraction, put an end to it.
Many of the countries that are home to famous ruins and monuments are comparatively poor counties, many of them relying on these sites to help draw in tourism, sometimes the number one industry in the country. With travel becoming ever more affordable, and many tourists lacking the proper respect for the countries and the historic sites they visit, many of these monuments and ruins that have stood for thousands of years already, may only have so long before they are only to be remembered in history books.
There's another quote from one of Ciesielski's interviews that to me illustrates his ignorance and immaturity. He says of climbing the pyramid, “I wanted to experience Egyptian culture, and I definitely managed that.”
I mean, really??
I don't even... *smh*
In what way is illegally climbing one the pyramids “experiencing Egyptian culture”?
Last I checked, climbing the pyramids is not part of the daily routine for the average Egyptian.
Sadly, Ciesielski is not alone in his misguided view of experiencing foreign culture. Talk to almost any tourist or traveller and one of their top goals while travelling is to get an “authentic” view of the country, it's people, and their culture. Authentic has become a travel buzzword that's now little more than a caricature. Savvy local tour operators offer a variety of tour options to “authentic” villages and historic sites, with only one caveat: The villages are often now supported entirely by tourist revenue, and can be little more than glorified human zoos.
The problem with authentic, is that when travelling to second and third world countries, authentic is uncomfortable. What tourist wants to spend part of their vacation working in a rice field or some other form of hard labour for 12 hours a day, sleeping in a communal bedroom with no electricity, or going without clean drinking water? The scale of authentic can vary, and you can get a somewhat authentic experience without living in abject poverty. But make no mistake, the traveller after authenticity had better be prepared to lower their standard of living in exchange for it.
In my experience, the simplest, and most fulfilling ways to get an authentic view of a culture and country are through the people. Have real conversations with the people you come across, share a meal, spend a night with them. I personally have experienced the greatest hospitality in some of the poorest countries I've been to. If you're looking for an even more in depth experience while also giving back, sign up to volunteer and live with a family for a couple of weeks or months. Sites like HelpX are full of opportunities like this and often offer the most rewarding travel experiences.
While I don't doubt that climbing one of the wonders of the world would be a personally rewarding experience as well, don't confuse it with getting an in depth look at local culture. I can't imagine anyone that decides to go over Niagara falls in a barrel does so because they want to experience authentic Canadian (or American) culture. In the end, this is just another case of western privilege where a tourist - generally a white male in my experience - breaks local regulations and gets off all but unscathed. I wish this was an isolated incident, but the more I travel, the more I see this attitude of entitlement and privilege exhibited by westerners in foreign countries. Both travelling and at home I think we could all do with a little more respect for culture, history, the environment, and each other. But, maybe I'm a dreamer.
I'd love to hear what you think about the story of Andrej Ciesielski and his ascent of the Pyramid. Do you think as tourists we're entitled to do what we want if the country we're visiting relies on tourism? Is there a line somewhere in between respecting local regulations and having a rewarding experience? Or do stunts like this just make it worse for future travellers hoping to view sites like the Pyramids, with increased security, regulations, and possible damage to the structures themselves? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to hear your opinion.